Drought has officially been declared in Southland and parts of Otago, a day before heavy rain is expected to lash the south for a sustained period.
Minister of Agriculture and Rural Communities Damien O’Connor has declared drought in the whole of Southland and Otago’s Queenstown Lakes, Central Otago and Clutha districts.
The “medium scale adverse event” drought classification, made on Tuesday – triggers additional funding of up to $130,000 for the local rural support trusts and industry groups to coordinate recovery support.
“We’ve been working with local farming groups, councils and NIWA to monitor how the drought has been progressing and the impact on the farming communities,” O’Connor.
“Anticipated rain that could have provided respite just hasn’t fallen in the right areas to mitigate the effects of the early hot dry summer.”
Farmers had been unable to grow sufficient feed for winter and had been using stored feed and brought in supplements for stock, as well as selling off animals.
Heavy rain is predicted this week, but the drought had already taken its toll on farms and would take time to recover from, O’Connor said.
“While rain now would allow pasture to grow, this can take a month to translate into feed for animals, and many are now well behind in preparing for winter.
“So the recovery assistance measures are as important as ever, even when we finally get decent rain.”
The formal request for the classification was made by drought committees and rural communities in a letter to O’Connor – in which they highlighted the extremely unusual event for Southland.
Organisations in the regions were gearing up to assist farmers with feed budgets, technical information and farm management, and stress management.
The early start to a hot dry summer had taken its toll on the groundwater and rivers in the south of the country, and farmers were working hard to look after their animals in a challenging climate.
The Inland Revenue would also consider hardship situations but farmers should contact their accountants in the first instance, he said.
The drought was originally classified as a medium-scale adverse event in the North Island across Taranaki, western parts of Manawatu-Whanganui and Wellington, and the Grey and Buller districts of the South Island’s West Coast over the Christmas period.
Significant rain has improved soil moisture in some of those areas, but recovery from the drought is an ongoing process.
Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker said the official drought declaration would offer some relief to those affected.
“This is recognition that we are now … into an extreme event – I’m pleased [Damian O’Connor] has listened to our communities’ calls for action.”
The declaration of drought coincided with Environment Southland upgrading the low water situation in Southland from “concerning” to “serious” on Tuesday.
Environment Southland senior staffer Graham Sevicke-Jones said the sustained low rainfall was starting to have a wide-reaching impact on the region.
“With the river levels continuing to drop, we’re now at the stage where not only those in rural areas are feeling the bite of the low water levels, but people in all our towns and the city are also subject to council restrictions.”
The Oreti River was measured at 2.73 m3 per second at Wallacetown on Tuesday, an extremely low flow that occurred on average only once every 15 years.
The Mataura has fallen below 11 m3 per second at Gore, triggering a number of consent restrictions.
There had been little rainfall around the region in the past week, however the Metservice has issued a severe weather warning for Fiordland and a severe weather watch for Southland, with heavy rainfall forecast for the entire region for Wednesday evening and Thursday.
Global weather models are predicting 80 to 165mm of rainfall in the headwaters and western areas, while coastal areas are expected to receive about 50 to 80mm.
“If that happens, it will change the situation very quickly for our rivers, and we would have around one to two weeks grace before rivers could again be at the current low flows,” Sevicke-Jones said.
As a next step, Environment Southland could issue a water shortage direction, which would put further restrictions on water takes and discharge consents throughout the region. This would however be considered very carefully, Graham said.
“If the current weather continues, we could be in a situation where the water flows will be so low that they will be seriously affecting domestic water supplies, stock water and firefighting reserves. We’re very aware that we need good support available for farmers and other businesses if there’s a need to put on further restrictions.”